Ryan Power: Interview
“I’m trying to tap the collective unconscious. I’m trying to find a seat in the front, so I don’t get car sick.”
Since last year’s LP I Don’t Want To Die on NNA Tapes, Ryan Power has been stirring up love and affection in the pop scene. Lyrically, I mean. And late this spring, his new album Identity Picks will be popping on vinyl via NNA Tapes once again. But the man has been tirelessly working on music since 2002, whether his own or by helping others with theirs in post-production. And the fellow tours extensively, so expect to see him sometime soon once his new album is out (June 25). For way more information on Identity Picks, you can hit us up, him up, or them up ASAP.
For now, we have this interview, in which we talk to Ryan Power about cyclothymic cyclops, NNA Tapes, and the pains of marketing/promotion.
What has changed for you in the writing process from I Don’t Want To Die to Identity Picks?
Maybe a little less using the computer as a composition tool, and focusing more on the piano. Octave or root plus fifth in the left hand, triad in the right, and off I go. Pretty simple really.
When did your computer become more of a composition tool for you?
Around 2005. That’s when I started to sketch more in the the computer. Improvise things and edit the shit out of them until they made sense. Cut and paste the form or make pretty patterns with midi notes.
How much do you consider yourself a lyricists/writer compared to being a vocalist/musician?
I would say I’m more of a musician than a lyricist. I like the sound of new connections. I like interesting chord changes and melodies. I can get bored if a song is too static harmonically. I like the sound of the human voice too, so I try to write words that are meaningful to me. I’m not really a poetry guy. I like dialogue, I like honesty in writing. Blending funny and sad. The Roches are my role models.
Do you usually write lyrics prior to the music; what’s your writing process?
I’ll usually start with a synth sound I like, and start playing some chords until I feel the funny feeling, and then I’ll hum, moan, or ad lib vocals, and record it. I’ll do this on my dictaphone and refine it for a few weeks until I’m happy with the structure. Then I’ll replace all of my gibberish vocals with colloquialisms. Sometimes I morph parts of my notebook entries into the songs; sometimes I go for it. It’s a giant sonic puzzle.
You can’t believe anything in this business until it’s happened. And then you have to wonder.
If there were such a sonic puzzle in real life, like a physical version of it, what would it look like to you?
It would look like a cyclothymic cyclops with midi notes as neurotransmitters, a PC laptop as the eye, Roland synthesizers as arms, a drum machine as a wheel chair, and XLR cables and spines of spiral notebooks as dreadlocks. I’m kind of ska. Hopefully someone will destroy this beast, so I can go play guitar in the woods.
OH MAN “The Prize” is poppin’ OFF right now. What’s this track personally to you? Where’d it stir itself up lyrically?
That track started off as a song about relationships. How they can, for various reasons, sometimes hit a wall at the two-year mark. I left the lyrics unfinished for a while and came back to it after watching the documentary “Inside Job,” and was angered/inspired by that.
All last year I had “I Don’t Want To Die” as my 6 AM alarm clock. In your opinion, what’s your best morning song off your new joint Identity Picks?
“Probably Identity Picks.” The truth is though, I’m really sick of hearing these songs. Mixing will do that.
Does your track “Well On Your Way” end abruptly on purpose?
It ends abruptly on purpose. That’s a Chris Weisman thing. When we digitized some of his four-track albums we’d make really hard cuts between songs. I thought it was fitting for the spirit of the song and I didn’t want another fade. That outro goes on too long, but whoop-de-doo. I generally don’t like long repetitive outros like in some Stevie Wonder songs, but I indulged.
How’d you hook up with them NNA fellahs?
They live in Burlington and I’ve know them for years. We’re townies. I forget how we initially met, but I played a show with them (Oak + Snake In The Garden) back in 2007 in Maine. My brother did a performance piece where he got in trash bags and squirmed around on the pavement in front of the venue. It was called “Shitworm.” He’s the real artist in the family.
Whoa, let’s keep his 15 minutes moving: Where was your brother coming from on this? What was the area like? Can you describe the memory in a little more detail?
You should ask Matt or Toby for their recollections…
[I reached out to Aronson from NNA Tapes, and here’s what he said: I remember it was a hot July night in Portland Maine. My band at the time Oak was performing and we all saw Ry-Pow do his new set of songs, performed karoake. I never really talked to Ry Pow before, although we had been in the same town for awhile, and since there were around five people at the show I recall at some point striking up a conversation with him about mortality and illness (Funny that!) But the shit worm may have been the best. It consisted of a turkish-laden belly dancing soundtrack in which Ryan’s Lanky brother simply climbed into a plastic back and writhed around. This squirming eventually made it out on the street where onlookers that included a few policeman and my grandmother observed this crude act. Within a few moments the shit worm was born as it emerged into the night out of the plastic bag garbage bag.]
How long is the mixing process for you? Like, what’s been the shortest and the longest?
The mixing process starts when I’m recording. I can’t help but add reverb, pan, or eq things from the get-go. It’s hard for me to guesstimate the amount of time it takes. It basically takes me three years to finish a record. I’m slow. I’d like to get the next one out in two! We’ll see.
How has touring and releasing been for you personally as an independent musician?
It’s been great to get my music out to more people. It’s nice to receive positive vibe emails once in a while. It makes me happy.
How has touring with Aronson been?
Fun. He asks a lot of questions. He’s a very interesting fellow. We have become good friends. He’s so supportive. He pushes me, which I really appreciate. Sometime I get annoyed when he’s giving me one of his lecture/rants, but I know he’s got my back. I’m sure my lack of ambition can get irritating.
Think y’all would ever play like a wedding or festival or dance or something?
Middle-school dances would be hot.
Where do your musical influences stir?
I’m trying to tap the collective unconscious. I’m trying to find a seat in the front, so I don’t get car sick.
It would look like a cyclothymic cyclops with midi notes as neurotransmitters, a PC laptop as the eye, Roland synthesizers as arms, a drum machine as a wheel chair, and XLR cables and spines of spiral notebooks as dreadlocks.
What’s your pump-up music?
When I was living in my buddies barn back in the winter of 2010, sometimes I’d stoke the fire, hop on the 1980s stationary bike, pop on Jeru the Damaja’s “The Sun Rise in the East,” and pedal my ass off until I broke a sweat. These days I don’t work out, but if I want a spike in my heart rate I’ll listen to late 1970s English punk or Kendrick Lamar.
Where does day-to-day influence and Ryan Power meet in music?
Night time is the right time. Transitional or difficult times seem worthy of documentation.
Ever consider featuring a vocalist of your caliber and aesthetic?
I’d love to have a female vocalist sing some of my songs. It’s just a matter of logistics really. And laziness. I was going to have Aerial East from Glass Ghost sing on some songs, but I dropped the ball. I’ll contact her down the line. She has a really pure, high voice. Reminded me of Wendy from Prefab Sprout.
What kind of opportunities have opened up for you since your albums on NNA Tapes?
It seemed like everything was going to change after the Stereogum interview, but in actuality, not much did. More people had a chance to hear my music, but it’s still up to me to focus and move forward. No one is going to do it for you. We still can’t get a booking agent.
Right after the Stereogum press, Dilly (the producer) of From the Basement contacted me about going on the show and being record by Nigel Godrich. I thought it was a joke, but once I realized it wasn’t I started shaking. We corresponded for a bit, and it eventually blew over. Dilly hates karaoke acts, and at that point, that’s what I was. Maybe I should e-mail her.
You can’t believe anything in this business until it’s happened. And then you have to wonder.
What’s been the most consistent difficulty in the music business for you, and how has it improved?
Promoting myself in a way other than playing shows. It’s gotten easier because NNA now takes care of that. Socializing with other bands is kind of hard for me too. It’s hard for me to connect sometimes; I’m not much of a schmoozer. It just doesn’t feel quite right. Unless I truly love the music.
How does Ry-Ry Pow-Pow intend on personally marketing the new record, tour, etc.?
I don’t like marketing myself. It doesn’t come natural to me. Some people can do it in a positive, selfless way, and others are just total egotistical assholes about it. Charlatans. I’m too vainly humble. I’ll tour though. Break even, now that’s success!
Do you think you’re helping bring pop to a progressive level?
I wouldn’t say progressive (even though it does sound like prog sometimes). I would say pop songwriting. I hope that the art of songwriting comes back. Right now it’s all about production. A lot of bands today are made up of producers that know how to manipulate sound, but can’t write a song to save their life. Side-chain compression takes precedence over interesting harmony. I don’t care if you have a beautiful reverb sound that you achieved by revamping your voice in a silo, or you made a wonky beat in Ableton using samples of your friend taking a dump. If there isn’t a song in there that takes chances melodically, harmonically, or structurally, then I can’t even hear it.